Allen was not interested in anything. An eighth grader, he was best buddies with Don and Dave, two brothers, one 7th and one 8th grade. They all seemed unreachable. They refused to do any homework; sat rigidly quiet in their desks until I wasn’t looking then shot spitballs around the room. Years of strict discipline had honed their skills so they didn’t get caught.Allen was slightly more open, and at times you could see he was interested in the science experiments, but managed to keep from jumping in. Don and Dave didn’t show any signs of loosening up.
One day, when the lesson was over, and the kids were supposed to be working on their assignments. I started a project. I stepped out of my classroom to the schoolyard directly behind the big bank of windows so everyone could see what I was doing. I nailed an electric fence wire insulator as high as I could reach in a nearby tree, ran a wire over to an open window by my desk. I nailed an insulator on the wood siding as high as I could reach, then hooked the wire stretching it tightly 8 feet high, about 20 feet long. I connected an insulated wire to this and ran it through the window into the classroom.
While I was working on this, several students came out to watch with questions of what I was doing. My internal rules for the classroom were that kids who were learning didn’t need rules about sitting, moving, etc, and if they weren’t learning, it was probably my own fault. I didn’t state any rules for the kids other than “behave the way you know you should,” followed up by “Gee, if you really have to go to the bathroom, just go. I don’t want to know the details!”
Continuing the project, I came back in connected another wire to the heating radiator next to my desk. All this time the kids were bothering me asking me what I was doing, following me around including Don, Dave and Allen (most likely because they saw an opportunity for some deviltry along the way). I wouldn’t answer questions, just made comments like “needs to be pointing towards Green Bay to pick up a strong signal,” “got to make sure the antenna isn’t getting grounded,” “needs to have a good ground.” The kids were boisterously puzzled.
I sat down at my desk and opened a shoe box and brought out “toy.” A six inch square wood base, mounted with an empty toilet paper roll wrapped neatly with 100 turns of copper wire, a piece of tin that slid back and forth across the roll and a tiny earphone, some connections, and a tiny little electronic component wired to the coil. “I need to hook the antenna here, and the ground here,” clipping on my newly hung wires. Then I stuck the earphone in my ear. “Quiet, I need to hear,” I ordered everyone who by then was clustered tightly around my desk.
Moving the slider slowly across the coil, I stopped it in the middle, smiled and started moving my head and snapping my fingers as if to music. “What do you hear? What is that thing?” Allen was in the front and absolutely fascinated by what I was doing.
“Here, try it,” I said, handing it to Allen, “stand back guys and be quiet, you can all have a turn. It is a radio, it’s called a crystal set. I made it last night to see if I could pick up a station out here on the island.”
Allen took charge and gave each a turn. “Where’s the battery? Can I make one,” he asked with a rush of questions after things quieted down.
“Well, Allen, I’ll make a deal with you. If you start working on your assignments, I will help you make one. I have some spare parts that you can have. First thing is when you get home, save an empty toilet paper core.“
“Russ, do you know what is wrong with Allen,” Janitor Jim, asked me after school that day. “He went into the bathroom and unrolled a whole roll of toilet paper and dumped it all in the garbage can.”
Allen built his radio, helped several others build their own. This was his turning point; with a few more projects (i.e. homemade model rockets, tooth pick bridges, paper airplanes and the Great Egg Drop) he took on his other work in a cheerful friendly manner that spilled over into his other classes.
That left Dave and Don and another story is how with a telescope and star chart they too got interested and active in science.